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HomeArticleWelcome Home: ‘Best Christmas Ever’ Transforms a Family, a Parish and a Community

Welcome Home: ‘Best Christmas Ever’ Transforms a Family, a Parish and a Community

Welcome Home: ‘Best Christmas Ever’ Transforms a Family, a Parish and a Community

Matt, a former Marine, his wife, Cassie, and their five kids were surprised with a new home, thanks to the generosity of the local Catholic community. (photo: Courtesy of Father Brandon)

One parish found the secret to getting more people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ was to come together to help a homeless family in need.

DULUTH, Minnesota — On Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, Father Brandon Moravitz stood in the house that, in less than a month, had transformed the lives of his parishioners, his priesthood and community.

In each newly furnished room he had blessed, little details — from a Scripture on the freshly painted walls to rosaries on the bedposts — spoke to the love and kindness of various parishioners (and so many others) who had put themselves into painting, furnishing and decorating this home.

This would be their gift of the “best Christmas ever” to transform the life of a family, homeless and fallen on hard times.

Into the home walked Matt, a former Marine, his wife, Cassie, and their five kids — not realizing the furnished house, with its 18 months of advance paid rent, the new van outside and more than 60 gifts, thoughtfully chosen, were all for them.

The family had brought their own gifts to this unknown family they had prayed for the last three weeks in their own Duluth parish of St. Benedict. They knew the suffering of being homeless, living in a trailer that was breaking down, just as the unforgiving Minnesota winter was setting in. Matt even carried a letter he wrote from the heart to encourage this family to keep up hope amid hardship.

Then priests and parishioners told Matt, Cassie and the children the secret hundreds had kept for three weeks: Their family wasn’t in a stranger’s house in Duluth. Matt, Cassie and the kids were now home themselves.

“It was this beautiful moment of humanity and grace just colliding,” Father Brandon of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia, Minnesota, told the Register the day after the big reveal.

“Here, you have a veteran who has been homeless, the family and kids and all their humanity, just really encountering the grace of Christ,” the priest said. “And it was this beautiful, beautiful moment of seeing the church rallying around these people in need. So there was just this tangible joy.”

But as Holy Spirit’s pastor and participants shared with the Register, the past weeks had awakened deeper faith, bolder discipleship of Jesus Christ and missionary impulse in their parish and wider community than any of them had imagined. Conversions happened, people’s dormant faith was awakened, more parishioners volunteered to carry out the works of the Gospel, and morel lives were transformed.

And it all started with Holy Spirit parish’s decision to join the “Best Christmas Ever” movement and work together to transform the life of a family they did not know and needed a hand up out of homelessness.

This was the parish’s fifth year involved in the Best Christmas Ever movement, which is organized by an eponymous charity with a mission, it states on its website, to bring about transformative generational change to families “who have fallen upon tough times, through no fault of their own.” People volunteer to captain teams and nominate families, who are ultimately matched with a team. The goal is to keep the whole effort secret, until the unveiling for the family.

This year, more than 900 families were nominated, but only 200 families could be matched to participating teams — and Holy Spirit’s group was one of them.

A month earlier, Father Moravitz convened a meeting of eight parishioners to pray over and go over a list of families within a 90-mile radius so they could select one to give their “Best Christmas Ever.”

“There was only one family on every single person’s sheet of paper,” the priest reported: a family of seven, living in Duluth. The father was a Marine Corps veteran, with a passion for helping other veterans who were homeless or struggling with suicide. Both parents worked hard, but the red hot housing and rental market priced them out of a home. And they had just lost a child.

Upon more research, they discovered this family was also Catholic and involved at St. Benedict’s in Duluth, where the father had been brought into the church only several years earlier.

Father Moravitz and his team knew this was the family they were called to help.

 

Dream Big

The key was to dream big, put in their best effort, and without any assurance it would all succeed, they entrusted the ultimate result to God. They would pray for this family, set a goal of raising $75,000 in funds, organize volunteers, and invite other military veterans there to welcome the family on Dec. 6.

The team organized over an invite-only, non-searchable Facebook group that ended up getting more than 500 people involved, with Father Moravitz giving video updates and sending out motivational messages from the start to the finish of the campaign.

Michelle Hacker, Father Moravitz’s sister and part of the core team, told the Register the Best Christmas Ever experience got the whole parish involved, giving in whatever way they could.

“Everyone, in each of their unique ways, was using their gifts and talents to be part of it,” she said. And she added that it really emboldened people to share their witness and testify to their faith.

Lisa Kvas, the principal of Marquette Catholic School in Virginia, Minnesota, told the Register that the Best Christmas Ever was “a pleasure for our school to be a part of it.”

The students also competed in generosity to gather coins and fund the purchase of  games, books and toys for the family. The goal was $1,100, and the students doubled the goal  — but no one could match the generous spirit of 5-year-olds who offered their “tooth fairy money” to support the family in need.

When all was said and done, Holy Spirit raised nearly $145,000. Businesses got involved in donating items, and, through word of mouth, gas stations in Duluth offered free coffee and hot chocolates to anyone involved in Best Christmas Ever. Even evangelical churches inquired what was going on, and Christians of other denominations got involved.

 

Awakening Deeper Discipleship

The Best Christmas Ever movement has brought about spiritual transformation.

“Generosity begets relationship with the Lord,” Father Moravitz said. The movement prompted people to choose to follow Jesus Christ — there are five new people in the parish’s RCIA program — and others have told him their faith feels alive again. The priest says he knows there will be new faces at Mass on the weekend because people heard about the parish’s charitable endeavor.

“I think this creates a sense of curiosity and trust to then lead to deeper discipleship,” he said,  referring to the thresholds of conversion — trust, curiosity, openness, seeking and discipleship — outlined in Sherry Weddell’s book on Catholic discipleship, Forming Intentional Disciples.

Ben Frost, who leads adult evangelization at Holy Spirit, told the Register the parish’s witness shows the “beauty” of the Catholic faith in action.

“This experience of beauty is drawing them deeper into those conversations of goodness and truth,” he said.

Father Moravitz said he looks forward to embarking on this event every Christmas. Hearing one of the children run out of the door of their new home and shout to him, “You’re the best Father ever!” was one of the greatest Christmas joys a priest could hope for.

The impact of helping is extending to many others in need. Matt gave the family’s former trailer to another homeless man he met who is now going through RCIA in Duluth and has been reunited with his family after a 15-year separation. More Holy Spirit parishioners are organizing to carry out more works of mercy to the poor and the homeless in their midst, and one just donated $20,000 to help the parish do more — all in the spirit of St. Nicholas and the true meaning of Christmas.

“The sky’s the limit, at this point,” Michelle Hacker said, as more and more parishioners embrace discipleship thanks to the Best Christmas Ever initiative. “This is not the end. It’s just the beginning.”

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